Sitting Down with Mark Sample


Tell me about the project you’re working on right now or one you completed recently.

Most recently I finished my doctoral dissertation, which was a study of Don DeLillo and Toni Morrison’s engagement with the violence they see embedded in consumer and material culture, say, for example, the violence obscured within a Coke bottle or a piece of candy. A guiding premise of my work, to use a phrase from DeLillo’s novel Underworld, is that “everyday things represent the most overlooked forms of knowledge.” I take this idea very seriously, in both my traditional literary scholarship and my ongoing work with new media.


What kind of project do you see yourself tackling next?

Turning my dissertation into a book is next. The University of Texas at Austin has an extensive archive of DeLillo’s papers and notes, and I’d like to consult them as I rework my dissertation. Then I also see combining my work in new media with my pedagogy. I’d like to assemble a small digital archive of advertising images from the seventies. I have about fifty images now, but I’d like to expand this collection. One way I use this archive is to ask students to pick one or two images and discuss them, looking at the subtext, the presumed audience, the way the images foreground certain anxieties and avoid others. It’s a kind of lesson in semiotics, but without using the specific language of “sign” and “signifier.”


“Connect the dots” for me from your undergraduate education to where you are today: geographically, developmentally, and creatively, in a way that helps our students imagine how they might find themselves in your position one day.

In a way I’ve come full circle, although I got turned around along the way. As an undergraduate at Miami University in Ohio, I was a mass communications major and thought I wanted to go into advertising. I quickly realized that I was opposed in principle to the whole concept of corporate advertising, so I switched to what I imagined was the farthest possible career path from advertising, becoming a history major. I ultimately focused on social studies education, graduating with a B.S. in Education from Miami. I then taught high school in Toledo, Ohio. After several years I found myself wanting new challenges, and I decided to pursue a M.A. in Communication, Culture and Technology at Georgetown University. While at Georgetown, I worked with Professor Randy Bass on the American Studies Crossroads Project, a interdisciplinary, international online project for teachers, students, and scholars of American Studies. Even after going on for my Ph.D. in Comparative Literature and Literary Theory at the University of Pennsylvania I continued working on various research projects with Randy, like the Visible Knowledge Project. While at Penn I also finished three years of coursework, served as a research assistant, taught my own classes for several years, and was heavily involved with faculty development and teaching with technology. During the final stages of writing my dissertation I applied George Mason. This was the only position I saw that really offered the opportunity to blend together the two strands of my work: traditional literary scholarship and my interests in new media.


Since this issue of English Matters is devoted to “visual culture,” how would you describe the specific intersection of your research interests and visual culture?

I’m very interested in Walter Benjamin’s notion of the “dialectical image”—the image that brings together two incongruous elements in a way that complicates our understanding of both. My classic example is the one from a short story by DeLillo, who has terrorists fashioning Molotov cocktails from Coca-Cola bottles.


Describe to me your “dream class” – i.e. the class you’re most eager to teach. What level is it? What type of class? What kind of assignments you'd like? Your goals?

One new media studies class I’d like to teach would revolve around the concept of the archive, something like “New Media and the Archive.” Of course I’d use Foucault to set up the idea of the archive, as well as other theorists like Mark Poster and N. Katherine Hayles. I see it as a senior seminar, a small class that would be taught in Innovation Hall, and the primary text for the class would actually be the enormous Internet Archive, which contains thousands of films, images, sounds, and other texts either in the public domain or published under the Creative Commons License. I think more work needs to be done to theorize this new kind of “archive” and how people use it.


Describe the contributions you think your field of inquiry makes to knowledge in the academy? Knowledge in the larger culture? What, in your mind, is the relationship between the academy and the larger culture?

I think that as a society, we have not really reckoned with the implications of digital media. I see my work as encouraging readers and participants in new media to “slow down” and to defamiliarize our practices. This is the impetus for much of my work. Even in my DeLillo/Morrison project I want to show how these writers infuse familiar objects with alien meanings, forcing the reader to confront the secret life of ordinary things.


What kind(s) of alternative career paths did you/do you imagine for yourself, in addition to what you’ve mentioned? What might you have chosen, or why might you choose, an alternative path?

I can imagine I might have chosen a path with more of a creative element. I’m a songwriter and the lure of busking on the streets of London or Madrid is powerful. I try to channel my creativity into my teaching, but there’s something to be said about being creative simply for the joy of creating, with no concerns about productivity or product. Also—and people think I’m joking when I say this—I would really like to beekeep. Something about honeybees and the amazing hive life they lead, I find utterly fascinating. I had friends in the heart of Philadelphia who kept several hives, and I was always amazed that in the middle of this stark urban landscape there were swarms of honeybees pollinating the city, producing new life in what amounts to a concrete bunker. There’s something hopeful, redemptive even, about that image.


Name two or three journals in your field that students interested in the field should browse to get an idea of the work published in your area.

Certainly Postmodern Culture. Another electronic journal is Kairos, which is devoted to technology and pedagogy. South Atlantic Quarterly (SAQ) and American Quarterly are two other interdisciplinary journals I often read. Modern Fiction Studies and Contemporary Literature are two important journals for literary studies. George Mason subscribes to all of these, and most are available online through Project Muse.


Name the two or three major conferences in your field. How do they differ in terms of contributors, expectations, academic prestige?

A good place to get started for graduate students and even undergraduates is the Popular Culture Association, both the national and regional conferences. These conferences are very open to all kinds of work on popular culture, and the audiences are usually very non-threatening. Then of course the regional and national Modern Language Association conferences are very important. The MLA has hundreds of participants and attracts top scholars from colleges and universities across the world. Unfortunately it is often very difficult for students to have a paper accepted for the national MLA conference. Your best chance is if you belong to one of the smaller societies with established panels—who are guaranteed a spot at the MLA. It’s also important to network. You may meet someone at a conference one year, and then two years later find that same person sending out a CFP—a Call for Papers—for a panel. Speaking of CFPs, I’d advised graduate students to subscribe to the CFP listserv, the essential clearinghouse of conference announcements.



Look into your crystal ball and describe to me what the future looks like

in your field of study. How would you like to help shape the direction of your field?

The field of New Media studies is wide open. Scholars, writers, and artists are still figuring out the media, still building a vocabulary to talk about digital writing and digital art, still—and always will be, I think—experimenting with the form. On the one hand, I predict a convergence of theoretical approaches: traditional literary theory, film studies, the hypertext theories of the eighties and early nineties. On the other hand, I predict a growing antagonism between individual artists, writers, and theorists who work with new media and the corporate and state institutions that have their own agenda and own vision of what digital media means in terms of creativity and control.